Tag Archives: canadian music

Toxic Canadian Rock Syndrome: Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Fashionable People

It’s not all Nickelbacks, Dions and Biebers up here. It’s not even all Loverboys, Triumphs and Troopers (still a lot of Rush, though). We still have the rock, sometimes you just gotta look for it. Sometimes, it wins a Grammy and people are angry because they’ve never heard of the group before. Sometimes, it comes in the form of a band that has the best name based around a bandleader since “Blues Explosion.” Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Ashtray Rock brings the quirk, the rock, the jangly indie bits, the sweater vests and a concept album with a story as old as time: two dudes start a band, fall in love with the same girl and have a falling out. “Fashionable People” sets the scene at a party where the narrator has stars in his eyes and attempts to entice a girl away from all the other wannabes.

Immediately, the words of youth – “I feel foolish/I wanna drink too much”. As the narrator drinks, he attempts to talk up this girl he’s met, decrying all the other people at the party as he tries to make himself out to be the clear the prime candidate for attention: “I bet their parents/Are ridiculously loaded/Let’s get moving/Before I’m loaded.” The narrator uses the opportunity to talk about what’s on his mind, flaunting his newly-formed band, reciting the mantra “Fashionable people/Doing questionable things” to set his partying and recklessness up as a contribution to his future lifestyle instead of just being a drunk teenager. All the while, he attempts to be sly in getting with the girl he’s having the conversation with – “I like your boyfriend too/Do you think he’d understand?” – before the booze gets to his brain and he just says what he’s really thinking: “So ditch him/He’s no good for you…Switch him/Switch him up with me/Leave him in a ditch/And you can take a ride for free”. Plaskett’s relaxed delivery perfectly suits the tale as he delivers it with all the swaggering confidence he can muster.

The thing I will always take away from this song is the absolute insane drum sound when the chorus hits and Plaskett sings “the dancers need a dancefloor!”, very much carrying on from the sound used on David Bowie’s Low, but with much more feedback. The verses are light affairs with a heavily accented rhythm of drums, bass and light synth, with the guitar buried in the middle – none of which have any effects on them . This is what makes the chorus seem that much more boisterous when it comes around. The snare simply explodes with a few carefully-measured hits with a beautiful, overdriven raucous sound, as you bang you head and are ready to petition the government for more dancefloor space when you realize that you’re also hearing the guitar unleash for the first time. Drenched in gain but still crisp enough to whiff the fumes of those high notes on the guitar, the verse/chorus dynamic is done simply but very effectively. What makes it curiouser is the almost anti-chorus that follows the melee, as things tighten right back up and a small falsetto chorus chants “fashionable/fashionable/fashionable people” in the most delicate way possible with a little shaker in the background, which is silly but a great hook in its own right – more often than not, that’s the bit I’m singing after the song’s over!

There’s no getting around a solid song with a great hook, and for that, “Fashionable People” has earned many many relistens for me. It might be that I just like singing in falsetto a lot, too, but that certainly ain’t a strike against it!

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Music Mythology: 5 Great Rhythm Section Performances

I’ve always been intrigued with music mythology. Hearing about some band’s ‘legendary bootleg’ from Brighton in ’72 – “man, they were never better than that night” – or “Paul McCartney said this was the best bassline he’d ever written” or that it has been X amount of days since The Grateful Dead played “Dark Star”. All of these are really just ways of expressing fondness for a piece/oeuvre of music, but in such a way that goes a bit beyond “I like this”. It’s the conjuring up of this statements and passing down through the ages that makes them so interesting to me. They all begin with a kernel of simple fondness and then grow as that fondness becomes contextualized within the rest of a band’s work. When delivered to me in those sentences, it just gets me beyond to excited to join up with that experience and join in the magic all those people are already in on.

As my way of propagating this practice, I’ve compiled a small list of songs that I think have outstanding rhythm section performances. And really, it’s one of the things that is easier to mythologize. A great guitar solo is pretty self-evident, as is an outstanding vocal performances. Riffs and basslines will grab you pretty hard and even a great drum performance will not escape keen ears, but the rhythm section? Basically bisecting the band and looking not just at individual instrumental performances, but looking at the core and pulse of a song as the group of lesser-touted instruments make it all work. “This song has a killer rhythm section” is one of those perfect little things to pass on:

1) The Who – The Real Me

Welcome to classic rock’s premier rhythm section. Musically, John Entwhistle and Keith Moon absolutely dominated The Who’s records, with Moon restless bashing and Entwhistle’s high fills. No more so than on “The Real Me”. The first real song to kick off the concept double album, they start fast and heavy and just go up from there. By the end, Keith is basically doing a constant drum solo while John Entwhistle is flying up and down his fretboard. Check out the second verse (starting at 1:30), which is just Moon and Entwhistle underneath Daltrey’s voice, and you get an idea of the sheer power of the duo. Constantly moving, constantly adding dribs and drabs in every conceivable second, you can see how The Who gained the “Maximum R&B” label early on in their career.

2) Radiohead – The National Anthem

And here, we have the exact opposite. Colin Greenwood sticks on that four-note bassline throughout the entire song with aplomb, with the rest of the world fizzing and popping and cracking and melting around it. It’s the one constant for the entire duration – almost mantra-like. Phil Selway meshes into it perfectly with his ride-heavy jazz-tinged drumming that is nevertheless a pretty straight-ahead 4/4 affair. The thrill of this two working with mechanical precision is the couple of times that Selway simply stops for a bar, creating mad hot space, before starting back up again. Pretty much their only trick in the bag for this song, for which they have to keep the sanity somewhat moored while a bass section goes ballistic around them. A bass player and a drummer just playing in the pocket can be a hell of a thing.

3) Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Lipstick Vogue

Starting off with a Pete Thomas beration of his toms and snare, Bruce Thomas (no relation) soon picks up the aggression with his burbling bassline.This is a punk rhythm section that is about as articulate you can get as Pete throws in jazzy little fills into his straight ahead 100-mile-an-hour beat and Bruce’s bassline paces up and down while occasionally rearing up and tossing back its head. The whole aggression of the song rides on the Thomases stepping on gas while Costello spits out his usual vitriol, and does less guitar-playing than usual, mostly stepping back while the rhythm section does all the talking.

4) Austra – Beat and the Pulse

It starts out oddly, with Dorian Wolf imitating a bass synth…with his bass, playing a sweet staccato line that runs through the entire song and gives it its momentum, articulating the chords nicely and letting everything build on top (the actual synths). Maya Postepski comes on top with a snare that cuts through every other sound in the song and a shuffling electronic beat that cuts in and out, providing another option for your ears to catch onto under the backbeat. The strange interpolation of musicians playing their instruments in the manner of instruments that synthesize being played by musicians just gives an indication of how impressive the musicianship actually is and that new ways of driving songs with a rhythm instrument in your hand are being found all the time.

5) Our Lady Peace – Starseed

Jeremy Taggart is probably my favourite drummer of all time. His fills are never egregious, but never unimpressive and his snare patterns would make fantastic riffs on their own. Through Chris Eacrett was replaced on subsequent OLP efforts by Duncan Coutts, they do share one defining similarlity – they like to get low. As such, the bass does a lot of lurking in the depths of this song while Taggart’s snare-and-hi-hat-heavy performance puts him front and center in the mix. Eacrett puts out wave after wave of resonance, where Taggart’s lively performance frames it and shapes it with snare pummelings, working together to create something just as much felt as heard.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

#24: Raine Maida – We All Get Lighter

(Kingnoise Records, 2013)


(Image from confrontmagazine.com)

It’s been a long road. Our Lady Peace was one of my favourite bands in high school, and my fondness for their first four albums has never really diminished. It was after Spiritual Machines that the change started (new guitarist, new producer, no falsetto!?), and Healthy in Paranoid Times when I parted company with the band. I would listen to the occasional single and then turn back around, disappointed. Their most recent, Curve, caught my ear and kept me there. It wasn’t a matter of ‘returning’ to an earlier period in the band’s life as was promised quite a few times. Can’t step in the same river twice and all that. It was more as if both they and I were more comfortable with the band that they had become. It only does so good to stamp your foot and say ‘where’s the falsetto?’ and ‘where are the sweet riffs?’ because you’re not going to find them. The band has ten plus years of time put in since then, and they have all, obviously, matured. And, in a way, it got me ready for this album.

I bypassed Maida’s first solo album, The Hunter’s Lullaby, as I was still not ready to accept the fact that the band I loved had changed; hearing their lead singer doing singer-songwriter material was NOT going to help with that. Having enjoyed the approach on Curve, however, and hearing the lead single from the album (the brass-tinger folk of “Montreal”), I decided to make the leap.

The instrumentation is the first thing that struck me, as the first track on the album (the provocatively titled “How to Kill A Man”) begins with a sharp violin tremolo and female backup singers beautifully harmonizing on the chorus; the aforementioned “Montreal” has a jaunty horn line adorning the hook; both “Rising Tide” and “Numbers” employ drum machines, which I never imagined I’d hear paired with Maida’s voice. It’s fun to hear all different kinds of instruments being drawn on to fill out and suit each track (the anarchic, jazzy trumpet on “Rising Tide” is not something I expected to hear! It almost sounds like a brass line from Radiohead’s “The National Anthem) – it makes each song stand out more. This is especially true after being used to mostly hearing him front a guitar-bass-drum trio for so long. The album sounds quite lush as a result. It’s sparse when it needs to be, but the range of frequencies is filled out quite nicely as each track progresses.

Maida has managed to find a second somewhat unique voice after dropping his down post-Spiritual Machines. His assured baritone carries the melodies he’s written quite nicely, though it feels as if its timbre is lending the proceedings a more melancholic air – even the joyous-sounding “Montreal” feels bittersweet because of it. The best example on the album is probably the appropriately sombre “How to Kill A Man.” The melody is ponderous, as I have found they have been on the last couple of OLP releases, but not in the least bit boring (he commits a brief brush with his old falsetto during the verses) – the multiple Maida vocal tracks move smoothly with the backing vocals and manage to hit just the right peaks to create a haunting effect on “bury your heart with this guilt and regret/it’s the surest way there is to kill a man.”

At only eight tracks and 32 minutes, this is one of the shortest modern albums I’ve seen, not that I begrudge Raine Maida for being selective with his track choices – I’d rather have a fantastic short album than a decent longer one. And this one falls somewhere in between. Each track stands on its own quite easily, though the two singles (“Montreal” and “SOS”) are apparent, being the only ones that have notable hooks. The orchestral arrangements are a fantastic compliment to Maida’s voice, and I hope there are more of them in the future. My one complaint would perhaps be that the arrangements are at certain points more interesting than the melodies themselves! Nevertheless, a quite good collection of songs worth hearing, especially if you’re in a calm, introspective mood.


Tagged , , , , , , ,

#20: New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light – Colin Stetson

(Constellation, 2013)


(Image from inyourspeakers.com)

Nothing beats the roar of an instrument giving a complete solo performance. No lattice to string notes between, no safety nets to pad the sound – the noise just curls and undulates out in space. At least it would if Colin Stetson said it was okay. Though there are a few extended drone-like passages, Stetson uses flurries of clustered notes in order to build his houses of horror and redemption. Not to mention the incessant clack of the keys and occasional deep-throated scream which has no tongue to articulate it.

Now on the third album in what, thus far, is a trilogy entitled New History Warfare, Colin Stetson takes his bass and other assorted saxophones up once again to construct entire soundscapes with. The effect is mesmerizing. Wave after wave of flitting, honking, scronking notes texture each piece, while the mic’ed up keys give it rhythm and Stetson’s throat-screams lend the occasional ragged melody. Despite the astonishing diversity of sound at no point does it feel like an attempt to simulate the pieces of an actual band – it’s still one man emoting feverishly in every direction he can muster. To see more light.

To counterpoint Laurie Anderson’s narrative appearance on the previous volume, recent collaborative darling Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (on whose doubly eponymous album Stetson appeared on in 2011) lends his high haunting vocals to the proceedings this time, with ghostly wails on “High Above A Grey Green Sea” and a very surprising turn into deathmetal growls on the album’s visceral apex, the stunning, aggressive “Brute”. On “Who the Waves Are Roaring For (Hunted II)”, Stetson briefly considers taking the back seat as Vernon attempts to stretch coherent melodies over top of the jagged architecture, taking each phrase as a new melodic hill to climb. On “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?”, that arrangement is set more firmly, as Vernon’s multitracked vocals take precedence and Stetson’s wailing reigns in ever so slightly to allow some harmony to accompany Vernon’s lead. This is the only moment on the album that feels restrained, and provides sharp contrast to the unbound quality of the rest of the tracks.

Between the latter two tracks comes the finest demonstration of the album’s boundless nature, the title track, “To See More Light”. At 15 minutes, by far the longest track on the album and the longest in Stetson’s oeuvre, he has the time to set out for the goal stated in the track title. Lines build and build throughout, the energy never ceasing, never tiring, always grasping with no view towards cessation. This is where Stetson, no pun intended, shines. With a wider scope set around all of the manifestations of his wild muse, the picture comes into sharper focus and each mad tangent finds its own place within the sonic narrative.

Absolutely unlike anything else I’ve heard (save for Stetson’s previous outings), To See More Light expands what was built upon earlier in the trilogy and gives some new angles and fantastic payoffs, all rooted in the single instrument put in front of his face.


Tagged , , , , , , ,